Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Lucienne Day at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Whenever I'm in a town for a concert (as I was on Friday to see Steve Hackett in Manchester), I like to take some time to visit the local art galleries.  As you might expect me to.

So on Saturday morning I went to visit the Whitworth Art Gallery at the University of Manchester to see the newly opened Lucienne Day exhibition.  And what a treat it was - not just this little gem of an exhibition, but the whole art gallery itself.

The gallery is a massive, expansive exhibition space which in parts seems to open right out into the grounds that surround it - a bit like the Burrell Collection building - bringing nature inside.


Exhibits were allowed to have their own space, rather than being crowded in - such as this mobile which turned in the sunlight, forming a dialogue with the surrounding architecture and the parkland outside.


There were various other exhibitions going on, including performances by hipsters of the Siobhan Davies Dance Group, and a rather beautiful but ultimately harrowing video installation by John Akomfrah called "Vertigo Sea", about the cruelty and horror of the whaling industry juxtaposed with the plight of migrants making sea crossings.

But on to Lucienne Day.  

Best-known for her textiles, Lucienne Day (1917 – 2010) is a virtuoso pattern designer and colourist. She was an enthusiastic gardener and plant forms inspired many of her textile designs.  I love her textiles, which completely capture an era of optimism and a sense of moving towards the future after the war, whilst combining quirky graphics and clever observation.  It's that combination of clever design, awareness of purpose, and the capturing of the essence of the time in which they were made that makes them so very special.

This is probably the most famous of all - Calyx.


After the gloom of the war, this must have looked like a jaunty explosion of colour and mind-blowing frivolity.  After six years of people having to endure their families and houses being bombed to bits and having to make do, they could now buy fabric just to make their houses look pretty.  How crazy is that?  I love this pattern because it is both simple and complex at the same time, and is a balance between the sprinkling of almost childlike shapes and the solidity of the background colour.   It looks random, but there is a very careful mind at work behind it. There's a delicacy and an understatement, but also a strong command over the pattern-making.

Here is a display cabinet showing 'Trio', designed for Heals (bottom left).  Lucienne's daughter wrote that this strange little design, showing rather alien, ameoba-like creatures in groups of three, was possibly her own family group.  Lucienne and Robin Day were married for a good number years and were a closely-knit design group of two before along came their daughter and made it a trio.  


The design is both micro and macro - rooted in the organic forms you might see down a microscope, and expansive, like 1950s creatures from outer space.

Some years ago I saw a fascinating show at Glasgow School of Art showing Lucienne's rough designs.  They were large squares of card with coloured paper shaped stuck onto them.  It was really fascinating to see them, and the process leading to the final design.

Very careful thought has gone in to the practicalities of how the patterns were to be used.  Dress fabric, for example, has patterns which can be turned to match on both the warp and weft.  This meant that every piece of fabric could be used without wastage in having to match the pattern and leave large areas of unused material.

Similarly, the design Sequoia was meant for long drops of curtains in large corporate buildings.  Sequoia is a very simple pattern with long tree trunks.  When hung in repeat down a very tall, very wide glass area, the pattern forms rows of hugely tall tree trunks - just like being in a forest.  It therefore brings nature into the office environment in an exquisitely simple way.
 
This reliance on natural forms, the balance of contrasts and opposites - simple with complex, solid colour with delicate lines - and the real fundamental understanding of the purpose of design, that form should not occlude function - reminds me of the design work of Christopher Dresser, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and the goddess of achingly stylish yet practical pottery, Susie Cooper.  

All of these designers have incredibly individual styles, but are linked because their work is all rooted in natural, observed forms, and has a generosity and a simple understatement to it.  

All of them had a letting go of ego, because they understood that the things they made had to be used by other people for practical everyday purposes, and become part of other people's everyday lives, become part of them - to literally become part of the furniture.

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